The Director's Chair Interviews
Milos Forman defends The People vs. Larry Flynt against charges that it's porn-friendly.
by Joseph McBride
Though it seemed likely to be the most outrageously provocative American movie of 1996, The People vs. Larry Flynt turned out to be an unexpectedly decorous look at the raunchy world of pornography. Director Milos Forman makes no secret of his utter disdain for the work of his protagonist, the publisher of Hustler magazine. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), the film instead focuses on the First Amendment and on Flynt's role as an unlikely poster boy for free expression. That high-minded theme won the applause of most of the nation's critics when the film opened at Christmas, but a backlash soon erupted, led by Gloria Steinem and other leading feminists.
Forman found himself accused of whitewashing the misogynistic and racist nature of much of what Hustler has published over the years. The backlash evolved into a media blitz orchestrated to persuade members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to deny the film Oscar nominations. The campaign failed to prevent Forman from being nominated for a Best Director Oscar, but it may have been responsible for the film's failure to earn a Best Picture nod.
Forman is no stranger to political turmoil. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1932, he was orphaned when his parents were killed in German death camps. After the war, enthralled with American films, Forman studied at the University of Prague's Film Institute and was one of the leading figures in the Czech film renaissance of the 1960s. He became internationally known with his comedies Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen's Ball (1967). Czechoslovakia's brief flowering as a center for audacious filmmaking reflected a short-lived thaw in the Communist system, but the mood darkened quickly when the scathingly satirical Firemen's Ball was banned by the government. The following year, the Soviets invaded, and Forman soon found a haven in the United States.
His first American film, the hippie satire Taking Off (1970), perhaps cut a little too close to the bone to be successful. But Forman won an Oscar for directing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), an adaptation of Ken Kesey's anti-establishment novel set in a mental institution. His fascination with offbeat Americana continued with Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981), but his second directing Oscar came for his raucous debunking of Mozart in Amadeus (1984). The People vs. Larry Flynt is Forman's first film since the 1989 flop Valmont. For all that's been said about it, it is first and foremost an immigrant's impassioned love letter to the freedoms of his adopted country. Mr. Showbiz caught the filmmaker in a reflective mood a few days before Oscar nominations were announced, and he talked at length about the themes of his controversial movie, and the conflicting ways it is being received.
Mr. Showbiz: What did you know about Larry Flynt before you became involved in this project?
Milos Forman: I didn't know anything, except for what most other people know about him: that he's a smut peddler. I always read at least twenty-five pages of every script to find out if it grabs me or not. When I got this one, [at first] I didn't read it at all, because I saw the title, Larry Flynt's name. I thought they wanted me to do some kind of exploitation film, which really is not my mTtier. But when I found out that Oliver Stone was one of the producers, I read it more or less as a courtesy to Oliver. I was just fascinated with these characters and what the whole film is about. It's not about pornography, it's about much more interesting and important things.
Was the opportunity to talk about the First Amendment what drew you to the script?
Correct. I don't know if I should say it's fortunately or unfortunately, but I know what it is to live in a country where censorship was just running loose. So I am afraid that in this country we really are taking our freedoms for granted, that it's something you don't have to pay for, that it's for free.
What kinds of problems did you have with censorship when you started making films in Czechoslovakia? Did the government dictate what subjects you could or couldn't deal with?
Everything--they decide what kind of subject and they decide how you will treat a subject. And if it was not to their liking, then there was no chance to make a movie.
You had trouble with The Firemen's Ball back in 1967.
That was a sort of odd period, because it was three or four years of relative relaxation of this ideological pressure, with more liberal ideas about Communism, which didn't last long when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia [in August 1968]. But still, Firemen's Ball was banned immediately, officially, forever.
What was the reason, that you were mocking an institution in Czechoslovakia?
Satire always has undertones you can explain whichever way you want. They read it solely like a parody of their regime, of their government.
One of the reasons you came to America, then, was to get more freedom to make the kind of films you wanted to make.
That's absolutely correct. Because the moment that the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, it was clear to me that either I have to change profession, or get in even bigger trouble there, or just leave.
One of the reasons Larry Flynt got in trouble was Hustler's satire of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a parody advertisement describing a sexual encounter between Falwell and his mother in an outhouse. It was a landmark decision when, as a result, the United States Supreme Court held that satire of public figures is permissible and acceptable. It's very important for satirists to have free rein, isn't it?
Absolutely. Yes, it is totally tasteless satire which he did about Falwell, it's vulgar, it's something I don't find amusing at all. But still what is more important is that the law should not regulate taste.
Everybody has different standards of what he or she finds offensive. Some people would be offended by The Firemen's Ball. It depends on what people find sacred, doesn't it?
Exactly. The irony is that if the atheists seized control here, they could find religion offensive, as Communists did. For Communists, Jesus Christ was a pervert. When the doors are open to censorship, it always boils down to the fact that the laws are formulated in a way that only what's comfortable for the ruling party is acceptable. Everything else is subversive and damaging to the moral fiber of the society, or whatever you want to call it. That's why I think that the [Falwell] ruling was so incredibly vital and important. Because if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Falwell, that would have had a devastating effect. We wouldn't have Jay Leno, we wouldn't have David Letterman, we wouldn't have cartoonists, we wouldn't have Doonesbury, we wouldn't have all that. You'd be surprised what else we wouldn't have, who would say, "Well, I was emotionally distressed by what was written about me in this paper or that paper, I couldn't work. Pay me."
How would you react to the feminist controversy with Gloria Steinem and others objecting to the film being sympathetic to a smut peddler? It touches on all these issues we've just discussed.
Look, Gloria Steinem obviously had some very bad experiences with Hustler magazine. She has an argument with Hustler magazine. That she is taking on the film I think is unfair, because the film is not about pornography. The film states very clearly what she is complaining about, that it's tasteless and it's vulgar and it's manipulative and everything. The hero of the film, for me, is the Supreme Court of the United States. That's why the whole climax of the film is not [about] pornography but that whole Supreme Court session. So she's attacking a film for things which are not in the film and were not intended to be in the film.
It's interesting that some of the more extreme feminists are in league with the pro-censorship forces. They have agreed with the fundamentalist Christians that they want to censor smut. There's a Puritan streak in both elements--strange bedfellows.
Well, you know, the extreme left always meets the extreme right. It's always like that.
Do you think feminists should actually like your film, because it's about free speech?
I am not asking anybody to like my film, but to attack it for something which is not there I consider unfair.
Do you think that has had any negative effect on the Oscar chances of the film or on the fact that you weren't nominated for the Directors Guild award?
Probably. It's difficult to speculate about these things.
People were surprised you didn't get a Directors Guild nomination. How did you feel about that?
Of course I was not happy, but that's showbiz.
I'm not sure exactly what you have said about your prior knowledge of Hustler, but I believe you said you hadn't read it before making the film.
No, no, no, I never bought Hustler in my life. But I saw Hustler, you know, a few times here and there on the coffee tables. And then, of course, when I was preparing the film I had to go through hundreds of pages of Hustler. I wanted to learn more about Hustler and Flynt. Mainly I had to choose what I want to show in the film and what I don't want to show.
The film doesn't show much of what Flynt was doing with the magazine, in terms of genitalia and other outrageous material. You could have been a lot more explicit, couldn't you?
Well, it could have been, but first of all, I wouldn't do it myself, because I find these pictures unpleasant. And secondly, it wouldn't serve the purpose for which this film was made. Because the film is not about pornography, neither pro nor con. Pornography is unimportant in comparison with what I feel this movie is about. And it would only prevent a lot of young people from seeing it.
Was it a concern of yours not to get an NC-17 rating?
That was my decision.
Was that an issue at the time with the studio: "How explicit are we going to get with this subject?"
No. I was well protected by the producers, Oliver Stone and Janet Yang and Michael Hausman, from any interference from the studio. With the studio it was a remarkably smooth sail.
So you all agreed that you didn't want to show a lot of graphic sexual material?
I think it would be preposterous. Because everybody, I mean the adult audience, they know. They saw at least once what's on these pages. Plus they can look at it at home in the bathroom, if they want. Why show it in the film?
Some people feel that decision sanitized Larry Flynt, because you don't see exactly how offensive his material really was.
I think that in the film, what is said in the film and through many scenes, it's very clear that [Hustler is] tasteless, it's vulgar, it's offensive. We don't leave any doubt about that. Even the protagonist, even his wife is telling him that this is making people sick and people are vomiting and puking. His lawyer is telling him the same thing. So I think we don't leave any doubt that what he does doesn't have any redeeming value.
So your position is that no matter how offensive a pornographer is, he should still be allowed to practice, because otherwise we'd be repressing free speech.
I agree with that. But of course.
Would you draw the line anywhere yourself, such as with kiddie porn?
Of course, the minors--just leave minors totally out. But I don't think that there are any--any--pictures that can do any damage to adult people.
What about the view that pornography oppresses women?
Well, pornography oppresses men too, as far as I can judge from what I saw when I was doing the research about the film. The oppression is in the eyes of the beholder, because nobody is forcing these girls to do that, and they are paid. It's a business. I went to see once a shooting for Hustler so that I can see how it works to do this kind of shooting for this kind of a magazine. And I'll tell you, it's so clinical, it's so sexless, and boring as hell.
Do you think that the fact that you feel so detached from pornography, that there's nothing about the subject that attracts you at all, does that perhaps keep you a little distant from your characters? Or were you able to relate to Larry Flynt as a character on a different level?
The characters I am fascinated by. I just don't care for the magazine, for what he's doing. But the ambiguity of these people is fascinating. Because today we always argue, and even he doesn't know if he is really a conscious fighter for our freedoms or just a smut peddler who is using the First Amendment to enhance the sale of his magazines. It's possible that he is both. And if he is both, which one is he more? All these ambiguities fascinate me.
Did you get to know the real Larry Flynt very well? He was a consultant on the film.
I got to know him, of course. He plays a small part in the film, he plays a judge. He didn't have any rights to influence the script or the actual shooting, all he was consulted about were some factual things, like dates and names and places.
I heard a radio interview with him in which he said that when he learned Columbia was doing the film, he called them and said he wanted to be involved. And they paid him to be a consultant. Was that a way of keeping him cooperative?
I don't know about it. I am honest, I just read it somewhere a few days ago and I never heard about this kind of a deal.
You had to go to great lengths to get Courtney Love in the film. What was it about her that made you so adamant that you wanted her in that role?
I just felt that she is absolutely the best for the role. She was brought in by the casting director, Francine Maisler. I didn't know anything about her when she entered the room. I didn't even know about her rock-and-roll background. But after a few minutes with her, I realized that I'm in the presence of a really fascinating personality, and that's always good for a movie. She's an extremely talented actress.
Because of her drug problems, I understand that you personally put up a bond to insure her involvement, and so did other people involved in the film.
Columbia was adamantly against Courtney Love, because, first of all, she was not a big enough name for them, and secondly, they were afraid of trouble because of her past. They came [to me] with the argument that they can't find an insurance company. So I found an insurance company. But it was not cheap. Then they refused to pay the insurance. And then Woody Harrelson, Oliver Stone, Michael Hausman, Courtney herself, and me, we just put down money for her insurance out of our pockets.
And she had to have a drug test every week to make sure she was clean?
That's true, she had to give urine every week. And a representative of the insurance company was on the set every day, from the morning to the evening. Courtney was absolutely wonderful. Of course, I talked to her before, I said, "Courtney, you know I will fight for you, but you have to give me your word that you will not betray me." And she gave me her word and she never betrayed me.
What went into the casting of Woody Harrelson? I've heard there were other people considered for the role of Larry Flynt.
In my contract I agreed to a mutual agreement about the actor who will play Flynt, that I will not impose somebody whom the studio will not want and vice versa. So I asked for the list of people who are acceptable to them. I got five names and Woody Harrelson was on the list, but I didn't know Woody. I never saw him on television [in Cheers], and the only film I saw him in, Indecent Proposal, was not very convincing to me. So I agreed to send the script to the two first names on the list, Tom Hanks and Bill Murray. Fortunately, they turned it down. Then I asked for a meeting with Woody. We had dinner together, and I was sold on Woody from the first meeting. I liked him enormously.
He seems to fit the rambunctious nature of the character.
Did you do much rehearsing and improvising or playing with the characters?
I always like to have a solid script. But then, whatever the script allows, I love to improvise. Because that can bring on the screen a very fresh, unrepeatable moment. In the case of Woody and Courtney, they were brilliant at improvising. They know what the scene is about and what they have to say, but then I let them improvise and let them say it in their own words, which will come out spontaneously. Like in the scene when she is asking Larry Flynt to marry her. Or the scene when she is trying to convince him that he shouldn't get baptized, that he shouldn't meddle with religion. They succeeded perfectly to improvise, not as Woody and Courtney but as Larry and Althea.
Back to the idea that you made Larry Flynt too likable. One reviewer wrote that it was laudable that you humanized Flynt, but then you went ahead and canonized him.
It's an optical illusion. Well, listen, I obviously don't know [how he was] ten years ago or twenty years ago, but if you meet him today, he is charming. But that doesn't change what you can see in the film that this man's done. So I don't understand why the fact that he is not portrayed as a hundred percent evil makes somebody think I'm trying to glamorize him. That's ridiculous. It's nonsense.
The paradox of this sleazy guy defending the First Amendment throws the subject into more focus than if you had a saintly man fighting for the First Amendment.
If you made it about some saintly guy or somebody who just here and there says some profane words, it would be boring as hell. Nobody would see it, and the whole message of the film would get totally unnoticed and lost. Schindler's List was the same thing--was [Oskar Schindler] really a humane savior of life or just a Nazi who was using slave labor to enrich himself? What about Don Corleone in The Godfather? What about Bonnie and Clyde? Does it mean that if you make them human that they are less dangerous, less low-life? Of course not.
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